Human Resources News & Insights

Incentivizing employees to eat healthier

One company believes it’s giving employees the best thing it can to encourage them to be healthier:

Discounts on its products — health foods.

Whole Foods is offering steeper employee discounts to workers with lower body mass indexes (BMIs). It’s part of a company-wide initiative to reduce healthcare costs.

Currently, all employees are entitled to a 20% discount. But if an employee achieves a BMI of 24 or less, the person gets a 30% discount.

BMI is calculated form a person’s weight and height. It provides an indication of how much of a person’s body weight is made up of fat. It’s used to estimate a healthy body weight based on a person’s size.

A calculator can be found here.

Here are Whole Foods’ criteria for the discount. A BMI of:

  • 30-28.1 earns a 22% discount
  • 28-26.1 earns a 25% discount
  • 26-24.1 earns a 27% discount, and
  • 24 or lower earns a 30% discount.

And here’s a rundown of what a person’s BMI means:

  • Underweight = <18.5
  • Normal weight = 18.5-24.9
  • Overweight = 25-29.9, and
  • Obesity = 30 or greater.

The program, however, isn’t without its critics — some of whom believe the company’s goal is to charge heavier employees more for food.

What do you think? Is a program like this a good idea? Let us know in the Comments Box below.

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  • Jeff

    This is an unfortunate situation really.

    While having a plan in place to encourage your employes to live a healthy lifestyle is very beneficial to your employees and to your company, this one is not very appropriate. In the United States, health/healthy foods have a substantially higher cost associated with them. In my opinion, overweight employees should get a larger discount? I dont know, I guess I just never thought any policy which favored or excluded people made sense.

    If you are concerned about employee health, instead of a discount, create a benefit of a flex-style account, a fixed amount that applies across the board. $1000 a month in product at retail price, taxable at cost?

  • Lisa

    It does sound like they are penalizing the overweight. I also find the studies odd regarding utilization of healthcare and the obese. I’m overweight, yet I rarely use my medical benefits. However, the skinny people in my office are constantly running to this medical provider or that medical provider and the diagnosis is seems to be “there’s nothing wrong with you.” Yet they’ve just raised the companies utilization….and the fat people are blamed?

  • Tina

    I have to disagree and I’m sorry. Smokers have been penalized now for several years on their insurance bills. Whether an overweight person wants to admit it or not, you are a high risk for medical problems…heart, diabetes, knee & hip replacements, etc. Personally, I’ve seen more medical bills and W/C related claims with employees that are overweight more than anything else.

    But with that said, this company should be doing more to help the people that are overweight purchase healthier food items.

  • Cindy

    to Lisa:

    Although I am one of the skinny ones, I agree with you. Just because you are skinny doesn’t mean you are living a health life style or are healthy. I’ve lived a healthy life style and still got cancer. Happens.

  • Lisa

    to Cindy:

    I so sorry to read about your cancer. I hope and pray you are doing well.

  • Mindy

    I think this is a horrible idea and I hope WF realizes it soon and scraps it. I also wonder if this plan meets the requirements of the HIPAA wellness regulations.

  • Ann the Archer

    I have lost 140 lbs and I’m still at a BMI of 31 – still considered Obese. I don’t know if I’ll be able to loose another 50 lbs to get me into the “normal” category. If I worked for WF – I’d like them to recognize that I’m working toward the healthy goal – that it is measurable, and to incentivise me to continue by giving me the higher discount.

    I am working on getting a welness program into our company where you can earn a lower deductible by managing certain health risks – including smoking, high blood pressure, diabetes, colesterol, and weight – the more conditions you have under control, the lower your deductible is – and control does not mean “cured” it means controled to working to control such as taking medication, and loosing weight.

  • Jeff

    I agree that this is a bad idea on a lot of fronts. I know some generally healthy fat people, and some skinny people who don’t appear to be very healthy at all. Different body types could have different levels of body fat appropriate to them.

    In addition to the above comments which I agree with, BMI doesn’t even provide accurate information for everyone. Some people who lift weights and have a lot of muscle (which is generally heavier than fat) could be considered overweight under the BMI guidelines, even if they have a low level of body fat.

  • ckc

    I have worked in healthcare for 30+ years. Of course there are the outllyers as pointed out above. Statistically speaking people who are overweight will end up with higher medical costs. If it hasn’t hit them at a young age it likely will eventually. Of course not all “skinny” people are health, however, their risks for many diseases are usually significantly reduced. Any research I have read supports this time and time again. We need to stop thinking that “fat” is ok. It is not healthy and I give credit to employers for at least trying, even if some of their plans may not sound very friendly. Hopefully with a little input they will re-invent some of their plans and achieve their original goal, having health employees.

  • mike

    Finally a program that rewards results rather than effort. Just showing up at wellness events doesn’t make you healthy. Lowering your BMI does. I have observed employers for over 10 years gear their programs towards unhealthy and ignore the healthy….at least until the healthy are unhealthy. Kudos to them for making an effort to create an incentive to get the healthy to stay healthy!

  • R. B.

    I have been obese and am now thin, so I can see this from both perspectives. However, it should be noted that the company is providing a standard discount for all employees and is rewarding employees who maintain a “normal” BMI. Nothing is being taken away from a person who is overweight, but rather a benefit is being added to those who maintain a normal weight…and this is per a scale that was determined by the medical community and medical research (not by Whole Foods). It may not be perfect, but it is results-driven and the standards are widely accepted and promoted by physicians. This makes more sense to me than rewarding people for viewing some informational program on the internet. Viewing is not doing. It takes action to make a change.

    My hope would be that their insurance paid for preventative services such as stop-smoking medical assistance, help with nutrition from a nutritionist, additional help with losing weight from medical personnel, as well as an annual physical and other recommended screening tests. If so, they are providing employees with the tools they need to help themselves. If not, this might be something to consider as the up-front expense would pay off long-term if people take advantage of the available medical assistance. Most people can’t do it alone and an additional discount on food is not going to be enough to motivate sustained change.

    While losing weight doesn’t guarantee health, they are looking at aggregate data that supports facts in an overall way. Many overweight people are perfectly healthy. Many thin people are not. But when you combine all the information, there is enough data to support the fact that there are additional health risks associated with being obese, just as there are with smoking. The goal is to lower risk factors. This won’t prevent cancer or diabetes or any other disease / condition totally. But in many people, not smoking or maintaining a normal weight will make a difference between health and loss of health. Everyone is going to die eventually, so something is going to get us all. The desire is to live as healthy as we possibly can until that happens so we have a good quality of life while we’re here.

    I like rewarding much better than penalizing and this program does that. So I think WF has a pretty reasonable plan to help motivate health in this one area. Perfect…probably not. Then again, nothing is.

  • Theresa

    I agree. I have lost weight with our Healthy Utah program inspiring and encouraging this. After my testing session and found out I have type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and my bmi was obese, I then realized “I need to change or I will die early and have a ton of health problems”.
    February 18, 2009 was the day I changed my life and today, I now have managed my diabetes (no longer on medication) and have lost 40 lbs. With that, my cholesterol and blood pressure is normal. I feel great and I hope that they keep this program because it will help the utilization in the future stay low if everyone has the tools to be healthy.

  • Jan

    This is a terrible idea. It is wonderful to encourage employees to get and stay healthy but when you are discriminating against others it does not seem fair. I think this will bring the company morale down. We offer several wellness activities every year and every employee that participates is rewarded for trying.

  • Jane

    This is an interesting situation. I can see both sides of the issue. I think one challenge with Whole Foods is that their product is something that helps their employees eat healthier and would help those with a high BMI lose weight. On that basis, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to give the ones who would benefit most, the lesser discount.

    I was encouraged reading some of the links about the program. Whole Foods may be setting themselves up for discrimination but it sounds like they are really trying to accommodate and work with staff who may not easily fit within the established norms.

    I hope that Whole Foods is evaluating the impact of the program. If it is the only thing they are doing to promote wellness, then I think they are missing the mark. But if it is part of a comprehensive plan to move their employees to wellness and they can get their staff to view it as a motivational tool – then great!

  • Muscularly Obese

    Instead of using the BMI as the measurement tool to determine who’s obese amonst their employees perhaps Whole Foods can encourage healtier food choices and apply deeper discounts to the lower caloric menu items and charge higher amounts for those loaded with fats and sugars. Or have daily menu selections and apply deeper discounts to the heathier entrees.

  • The BMI is widely accepted, but doesn’t take in to account all these others factors such as physical level and body type when determining someones number. In order to combat those flaws other factors should be considered too. Others above have mentioned diet, efforts to become healthier, and if a person is a smoker, to be included with the BMI number in order to reward those who are healthy and are actually making an effort.

    Also why would you reward someone for being underweight unless you want them to purchase more of your food so they can get to a healthier weight? Being underweight really isn’t healthy.

  • SM

    In reality, this only works if employees want to buy their groceries from WF. Not everyone is into their products, and it takes quite a bit of a discount to get their products competitive to regular grocery stores. I recently converted to eating organic and love it. But not everyone cares. I wonder how many WF employees actually shop at other grocery stores, regardless of the discount.

    Perhaps their strategy should be more around education of their products/lifestyle recommendations, rather than proposing bigger discounts to an audience that may not even care.

  • Josh

    Ummm…. Penalizing? Don’t you dare start that nonsense. If organic spinach is like 3 bucks a bag and the fatty gets charged 3.50… THATS penalizing. Giving an incentive to be healthier that STARTS with a discount and get better… that is BRILLIANT.

    I am a big boy by the way… for those of you annoyed with the fatty commment.

  • Tiera

    Outside from the debate about whether they are punishing or rewarding….

    I wonder how come noone has questioned how employees will recieve this discount. So, imagine you are a WF employee, get off work, do some shopping and go up to the counter to have one of your coworkers ring you up. No matter how they try to hide it via discount codes or what-have-you, that cashier will know what type of discount the employee received. (Unless there is self checkout) This is telling not only the employer but also the coworkers personal health information about an employee. I don’t see how this could not get them in trouble.